It’s no big secret that both the fashion and beauty industries have significant issues that make them a challenge for many feminists. While there are certainly hosts of concerns within the two connected industries when it comes to race, body image, age and the promotion of sexist stereotypes, there are also aspects that are inherently feminist.
Though many are quick to brush off either fashion and beauty as frivolous or unimportant, there are those who write about these topics through a feminist lens and prove that these areas not only offer a wealth of things to discuss, but deserve our attention. As someone with absolutely zero fashion sense (who has also only recently started feeling comfortable–and actually likes–wearing make-up), I both enjoyed and appreciated speaking with these bloggers who have immersed themselves in worlds with which many feminists have a difficult–or non-existent–relationship.
Meet The Bloggers:
Location: Washington, DC
Find Her Blogging: Politics and Fashion
Blogging since: Began Politics and Fashion in 2011, but had a travel blog in 2008 during her stay in Nigeria.
When Not Blogging: Attorney
Favorite fashion designer: Can I please name more than one?!? Corey Lynn Calter, William Okpo and Phillip Lim
3 must-have pieces of fashion: Statement necklace, colored or print flats, chambray shirt
How did you start blogging about fashion/beauty? My favorite bloggers inspired me to start a fashion blog. I enjoyed their outfit posts, suggestions for “it” beauty items and food recipes, but I felt they were all pretty superficial. I started Politics and Fashion for women who are both fashionably and socio-politically conscious. My favorite posts explore the nexus between politics and fashion as a woman of color.
Can fashion be feminist? My definition of a feminist is one who eschews gender roles, believes in female empowerment and works to create an identity absent male approval and oversight. In my opinion, not only is it possible for fashion/beauty to be feminist but it is necessary. It’s important that women create culturally competent standards of beauty that are unapologetically female-centered.
How does your feminism influence your take on fashion? I’ve grown to be proud of my full features, kinky hair and dark skin. I no longer need high heels and revealing clothing to feel that I’m beautiful. I often shop in the men’s department and have embraced a kind of androgyny that I’m sure is based on my ideology.
What are your biggest frustrations with the fashion and beauty industries? My biggest frustration with the fashion/beauty industry is the prevailing standard of beauty. The fashion industry praises women who are rail thin and white with long, straight hair. Women of color are either marginalized or made into exotic phenomena.
What are your favorite things about these industries? It’s art! Some of the best known designers, e.g. Marc Jacobs and the late Alexander McQueen, are people who create wearable art. For this reason, I love expressing myself through clothing; my closet is the best expression of who I am.
How can we impact fashion to a point where the question of “can fashion be feminist” is obsolete? We can start by boycotting sexist and racist media.
Your #1 fashion/beauty tip as we head into the holiday season: Mix it up! Pair your favorite t-shirt with a bedazzled or feathered skirt. I’m also in love with brocade pants.
Name: Jenna Sauers
Location: New York City
Find Her Blogging: Jezebel.com
Blogging since: 2008
When Not Blogging: Freelance writer mostly covering fashion and culture. You can find Jenna contributing to the Observer, the Village Voice, The New York Times, Bookforum and Jalouse
3 must-have pieces of fashion: I don’t know if there are any fashion items I would truly promote as universally useful or necessary–if something is “fashion” it’s by definition not a “must-have.” And style is incredibly personal. I think it’s more useful to think about qualities of garments than particular garments themselves. Ideally, you want clothing that is well-made, which means it has deep, well-finished seams (the better to allow for alterations for fit), of a quality fabric with a nice hand and nicely finished.
How did you start blogging about fashion? I was working as a model in New York, Paris and Milan, and I found that the challenges the job presented were not the same ones I had anticipated and prepared for. I had vague assumptions about sexual harassment and pressure to be thin; I wasn’t prepared for financial malfeasance and the uneasy personal compromises that being professionally complicit in my own objectification entailed. That made me want to examine my own preconceptions about the industry, and I thought if I could do that in public, I might be able to help demystify the modeling industry a tad. And to provide an inside glimpse at an industry that is highly visible, but whose workers–mostly very young women, many of whom are immigrants–are rarely given a voice. I pitched a column idea along these lines to Jezebel, and since I quit modeling in 2009 I have been writing as a full-time freelancer.
Can fashion be feminist? I think fashion and beauty can be used to express feminist values and offer a powerful means to explore female subjectivity. I also think that the fashion industry has a lot of problems where its imagery is concerned, particularly with the extreme narrowness of the beauty ideal it promotes from the point of view of body size, race and age. And that obviously impacts a lot of women in extremely negative ways. Fashion has to take some responsibility for that. But fashion is, however, one of very few industries where female leadership is seen as natural. Virtually all the major magazine editors and the important stylists are women; many executives at major brands are women, and there are many, many women photographers and designers. That’s not to say that the industry is some kind of feminist utopia to work in–I have friends who work at major design houses where the staff is 70 percent female and the founder is a woman and they don’t even have daycare on site or the possibility of flexible hours. And of course it’s probably sadly the case that many women are drawn to fashion because other creative fields are less welcoming to us; fashion has traditionally been a kind of ghetto for women and gay men who couldn’t advance professionally elsewhere because of sexism and discrimination. (I personally blame internalized sexism and homophobia for many, but not all, arguments that seek to dismiss fashion or minimize its importance.) But I’ve always loved that, in fashion, it’s not a big deal for a woman to be running things.
How does your feminism influence your take on fashion? Feminism for me is a lens for viewing the world, so it influences how I do pretty much everything. It’s also a set of political beliefs that I try to practice. I think fashion, because it’s a female-dominated industry that largely concerns women, is actually a great field to examine from a feminist perspective. It certainly offers a lot of material.
What are your biggest frustrations with the fashion and beauty industries? The narrowness of its beauty ideal definitely grates. Fashion is an extremely diverse industry. So why are the runways always more than 80 percent white? And fashion, particularly at the low end, relies on a vast pool of third-world female labor. Many garment workers face absolutely atrocious conditions: fires in factories where the doors are locked by shift managers, six-week contracts that mean your job is always in precarious balance, exposure to hazardous chemicals and lung and eye irritants and some of the lowest wages in any skilled industry. All this because people in the West have come to see $10 as the natural price of a t-shirt as opposed to a low–in fact completely historically unprecedented–price that is the result of discrete policy decisions undertaken by our government that lowered the costs of labor by shifting its risks onto, primarily, women and girls already living in poverty. That’s a major issue to me.
What are your favorite things about these industries? I love that it’s an industry where women have power. And that’s not a novelty.
How can we impact fashion to a point where the question of “can fashion” be feminist” is obsolete? Perhaps by continuing to hold it to a higher standard. We don’t do fashion any favors by failing to engage with it, or by treating it as a frivolous oddity. It’s a global industry which impacts us all, and it makes sense to take it seriously.
Your #1 fashion/beauty tip as we head into the holiday season: God, I don’t know! Wash your makeup off at night before you go to bed, if you wear makeup, I guess. And dress however the hell you want because it’s the holidays.
Favorite fashion designer: Janice Huminska
3 favorite beauty products: Coconut oil: Amazing, non-greasy face and body moisturizer and, depending on your hair texture, a nice hair mask. Retinol face cream: It’s the only thing you can put on your skin that actually does help with wrinkles. I don’t want to look artificially young, but the lines between my eyebrows make me look angry all the time. Anger can be potent! Just not all the time. Look for 0.1 percent concentration of retinol; any brand is fine. Eyebrow pencil: I always shied away from this because I thought it would look fake, but it only looks fake if you overdo it. It just winds up framing your eyes nicely. If your eyebrows are thick, just maintaining a nice arch opens up your eyes.
How did you start blogging about fashion/beauty? I’ve always given serious thought to beauty and appearance, and the more I talked with other women about their relationship with beauty the more intrigued I became. Everybody has given thought to their appearance in some way, and I was eager to put narratives out there that didn’t just echo to the traditional script of women feeling bad about their looks–there’s so much more to say! Originally I was going to have The Beheld be much more interview-based, but the more I interviewed other women the more I found that I had a lot to say and I’d already created a space I could say it in.
Can fashion & beauty be feminist? Absolutely, and in ways that go beyond the rather pat idea of “choice feminism.” The mere act of considering what to wear can be feminist, in the sense that you’re in an ongoing negotiation with ideas of how you wish to present yourself to the world, self-expression, comfort, safety, signals and signifiers, expectations about age and race and body size and class. Subversion is a handy way to approach fashion and beauty with a feminist eye, but one needn’t be publicly subversive to do so.
Beauty and fashion can help us all find ways of being comfortable in the world. If you’re uncomfortable with your self-presentation, you’re going to feel distracted. You’re not at your best. Feminism doesn’t require us to be at our best at all times, but as a feminist I feel like there’s a lot of work to do in the world. If I’m worried or distracted about my looks, that work won’t get done as efficiently. Obviously the same thing is true of preoccupation with one’s looks, but I think as feminists we’re pretty well-schooled in that end of things. The other end hasn’t gotten the examination it deserves, I don’t think.
How does your feminism influence your take on beauty and fashion? I wouldn’t say that being a feminist has made me do any one particular thing differently. I do plenty of beauty and fashion things that intellectually I’m somewhat uncomfortable with but that on a practical level I feel better when I do–we’re talking some pretty stereotypical feminism-and-beauty things here. I don’t like that I feel better in high heels (even comfortable heels aren’t as comfortable as sneakers, let’s be honest), but I do; I don’t like taking the time to shave my legs, but I do. For me, the influence has been less about changing my actual practices and more about keeping up an ongoing conversation about those topics. It’s been about sort of synthesizing the lived practice of womanhood–or how I experience womanhood, anyway–with the politics and theory of feminism. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile the two completely, but that isn’t necessarily the goal.
Probably the biggest thing it has done for me is that I’m really eager to hear women’s stories about their approach to appearance, and instead of approaching beauty like a winner-takes-all competition I see it as a collective effort, one that is constantly shifting. The conversations that women are having about beauty bind us together. Even on a pretty superficial level I see that happening. It might seem like two women are having a conversation about lipstick with someone, but really they’re having a conversation about their lives, their relationship with artifice and ways we all work to find a space between adhering to traditional scripts about beauty and articulating genuine impulses and desires concerning appearance.
On a practical level, thinking critically about the industry has certainly made me wary of what products I’ll spend money on, though I know that, like anyone, I’m prone to magical thinking about certain products or habits.
What are your biggest frustrations with the fashion and beauty industries? I don’t really have any original critiques there: Basically, a lot of the advertising depends on crippling women’s sense of wholeness, and obviously that’s problematic. At the same time, the industry is pretty aware of the criticisms hurled against them, which is why you see campaigns like Dove Real Beauty, Bare Minerals’ blind casting and Bobbi Brown’s “Pretty Powerful.” But I’m cynical about those as well; the industry isn’t really changing, instead, it’s co-opting feminist language to continue to sell us stuff. It’s like The Beauty Myth educated consumers, but it also educated the people doing marketing and PR and advertising. I’m not against beauty products by any means, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic about any sort of advertising of them. I can sort of endorse the Clinique approach: showing pictures of the products, not of models wearing the products. It’s a rare industry case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
I also think so many beauty products are outrageously overpriced. I mean, I’ll spend a decent amount on a product that really brings satisfying results (like retinol creams, which aren’t cheap), but $22 lipstick? What, does it make you suddenly speak in Portuguese? I’d love to see a breakdown of profit margins on beauty products, including branding/marketing/advertising versus actual research and development and supplies. I think most women would be shocked at the markups, and they might start thinking more critically about who is really benefiting here.
What are your favorite things about them? There’s a lot of space for female entrepreneurship in the beauty industry, which is exciting; the field attracts a lot of really bright, inquisitive minds. As far as the consumer: There’s a lot of room for playing with personae and identity, in a way that isn’t necessarily bank-breaking. And I’m not about to champion the idea that women aren’t good enough as-is or that we “need” cosmetics, but because of the beauty industry I’m not nearly as self-conscious about things like blemishes and the like. There are arguments to be made there about accepting yourself as-is, but c’mon, who wants to walk around with a big red zit on your nose when there’s concealer in the world?
How can we impact these industries to a point where the question of “can fashion or beauty” be feminist” is obsolete? There are certain things that would be helpful: Yes, having a more diverse range of models would be nice, as would seeing the industry completely abandon insecurity-baiting as a tactic. That said, the reason the question is relevant isn’t so much because of the world of fashion and beauty, but because of the world at large. Fashion and beauty are called into question as being anti-feminist because it’s something that currently holds more allure for women than for men; you hear them being described as industries that are predicated upon women’s insecurities, but what that means is that they’re industries predicated upon women. I suspect that if women had a broader template of roles we could slip into–or alternately, no template at all–this question would become obsolete.
Your #1 fashion/beauty tip as we head into the holiday season: Red wine = burgundy lip stain. Enjoy!
Other Feminist Fashionistas & Beauty Bloggers:
While not all of these bloggers explicitly identify as feminist, their writing and fashion/beauty ideals definitely carry a feminist feel.
Allison Gary at Wardrobe Oxygen
Broadist – “Fashion for Broads”
Feminist Fashion Bloggers – Currently on hiatus, but plenty of archived posts to look through.
Meagan at Latter Style
Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minh-Ha T. Pham at Threadbared
Pemora at Urban Rhetoric
Sonya Krzywoszyja at Australian Fatshion
Tavi Gevinson at The Style Rookie
As always, please add your own favorites in the comments!